Russell Norman Bites: Let the train take the strain | 451life

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Russell Norman Bites: Let the train take the strain

Travelling the length and breadth of the country looking for potential restaurant sites is exciting in terms of business development, but challenging when done by rail.

It is well known in my office, nestled nicely between two blue plaques on the sunny side of Golden Square in Soho, that I get the heebie-jeebies if I have to travel too far out of the ‘hood. Soho is neatly bordered by Oxford Street to the north, Shaftesbury Avenue to the south, Regent Street to the west and Charing Cross Road to the east. I feel safe within its confines and risk nosebleeds and panic attacks outside its four boundaries.

Imagine my horror, then, when my business partner suggests that we travel to Cheltenham, Kingston, Shoreditch and Tunbridge Wells to look at potential restaurant sites. He did precisely this last week and I came out in a cold sweat. But, in the interests of professionalism, and also so that I didn’t look like a total prima donna, I bit my lip and made the trip. Four trips to be precise, and it was every inch the traumatic experience I expected it to be.

This week, however, has been far, far worse.

Having already endured train journeys to Cambridge and Birmingham, I am writing this on the 09:06 from London Paddington to Plymouth. It’s a four-hour journey there, a ninety-minute meeting in a pretty Cornish village on a small branch line, and then a four-hour journey back. My heart rate is unusually high and serotonin levels worrying low. Not even a Snickers bar and a packet of salt and vinegar Discos from the buffet car has made it better. I’m having serious collywobbles.

But it’s not the destinations that are the problem. Cambridge is a beautiful city, Birmingham is so dynamic and exciting, the Cornish village of St Germans is exquisite (I wish I were staying longer) and Cheltenham rocks. Nor is it the restaurants we eventually open in some of the UK’s coolest towns and cities – I love them all and get as giddy as a schoolgirl when visiting. It’s the journeys themselves. Getting to these places is fresh hell.

There was a time when train journeys seemed glamorous. When I was a student in the 1980s, the thought of getting on an Intercity 125 from Newcastle to Edinburgh was as enthralling as a first class flight to New York might be now. But something went wrong in the intervening decades. Privatisation turned our mainline stations into messy marketplaces for third-rate operators putting profits before all other considerations. Trains are old and ugly, broken and dirty. Services are unreliable, crowded and slow. Staff are demotivated, despondent and irritable. Taking the train is much more likely to cause the strain these days than alleviate it.

It irks me that the stress begins well before the heart-sinking wait in the station. Have you tried to book a train ticket lately? The permutations and algorithms involved in navigating a way through the kaleidoscope of available options are breath-taking. Super Saver, Super Off Peaks, timed returns, open returns, designated routes, forbidden routes. How anyone manages to buy the right ticket is beyond me. It’s almost as if train companies are wilfully setting up barriers to make it difficult for their customers to find the cheapest route. Surely not...

I’m a cautious traveller and I often arrive at the station far too early. This affords me the dubious privilege of looking around, drinking poor coffee, Instagramming the architecture and studying the faces of the grey, downtrodden commuters. The haunted looks in their faces, the sloped shoulders, the dejected body language, the ever-present just-below-the-surface mild annoyance and irritation - if ever anything should convince you that train travel is a deeply miserable and unhealthy undertaking, it’s those poor souls with dead eyes trained on the departures board, unable to think because of the incessant, mindless tannoy announcements, and with their dread journeys still ahead of them.

So, take it from me, you are far better off staying where you are. Don’t leave the house/office/garden unless you really have to. And if you do have to leave, for God’s sake, don’t take the train.

Russell Norman

Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.